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Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected President of Mexico for the 2018-2024 term and has outlined two objectives for education—reversing his predecessor’s, Enrique Peña Nieto, education reform and generating new policiesthat will create greater opportunities for marginalized sectors of the population. His populist government has outlined new challenges for the immediate future of higher education that include unprecedented growth, focusing higher education on Mexico’s primary economic and social problems and providing higher education opportunities for individuals living below the poverty line. This essay examines the challenges and problems the incoming government will face in implementing higher education policy to achieve these goals.

Promises of the new government 

During his campaign, López Obrador proposed removing admissions exams from the higher education selection processes to offer open access for all—an afront to university autonomy—and scholarships to provide additional support to those in greatest need. He further proposed offering access to both public and private universities while awarding autonomy to private institutions that meet “quality standards” which implies freedom from any governmental supervision. In Mexico, very few private institutions hold this level of autonomy that is only granted by the president. Both proposals drew severe criticism because they implied the creation of a university voucher that could be used to attend private institutionsand, at the same time, eliminate state supervision over the private sector. The suggestion of public subsidies to private institutions seemed a contradiction to the ideology of a left-wing government. Although the government has not pursued implementation of these proposals, they have not been ruled out. 

López Obrador also announced that his government will open 100 new universities (Universidades para el Bienestar Benito Juárez García) that will offer curricula oriented to local development needs while providing education opportunities to the most disadvantaged youth in the poorest regions of Mexico. In 2019 the project has been allocated a budget of one billion pesos (52.6 million US dollars). 

Early setbacks and criticism

On August 15, 2018 López Obrador had promised the Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior (National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions) where all autonomous universities are represented, that if elected, he would maintain public investment in higher education institutions. 

In Mexico more than 90% of the public higher education budget comes from government subsidies. The draft of the federal budget for 2019 presented last November included a 32% cut to public higher education institutions, reflecting a new austerity and provoking loud protests from public university presidents. 

Ultimately, the government provided the same budget allocated in 2018 to public autonomous institutions, adjusting the amount to the rate of inflation. All non-autonomous public higher education institutions controlled by the central educational authority suffered cuts with the result that the total public expenditure for higher education in 2019 of 1.7 billion pesos (90.3 million US dollars), adjusted for inflation, represents a 6.2% decrease in funding to public higher education.

Regulatory reform and new grounds for dispute

On December 12, 2018 López Obrador sent Congress an initiative proposing the elimination of the mandatory evaluation of primary education teachers and two higher education reforms: one to make higher education mandatory, something no developed country has done, and a second to make higher education at all public institutions free. The original text eliminated university autonomy guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution. The López Obrador’s government argued that it was only a typographical error and not intentional. Nevertheless, most public university presidents, academics and students were concerned that this error might not be fixed before the reform was approved. Thanks to legislative intervention, this mistake was resolved in the Constitution and approved on May 9.

As the result of pressure from opposition political parties—PAN (Partido AcciónNacional), PRI (Partido de la Revolución Democrática), MC (Movimiento Ciudadana) and PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática)—the proposal presented by the president was modified and even had support from the president’s own political party, MORENA (Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional). Not only did legislators reinstate university autonomy, they insisted on a state obligation to increase enrollment capacity at public institutions for all students who meet entrance requirements. Supposedly, Congress has also committed sufficient funding to guarantee free and compulsory education at public higher education institutions but has mandated that higher education institutions may set their own entrance requirements. In other words, this is not compulsory, rather a more limited interpretation that implies that the state has to offer alternatives to students who are not admitted to the university of their choice.

Ambitious policy, limited resources

Mexico's higher education system enrolls 4.3 million students (66.5% in public institutions and 33.5% in private institutions) who represent 39% of the 18-22 age group.The López Obrador government has proposed higher education for all high school graduates by 2024. This would require 1,912,982 additional places or an average of 300,000 new spaces per year.If this target is reached, the system would incorporate over 55% of the age group. The current growth rate is 150,000 newly enrolled higher education students per year; doubling this would be an insurmountable task, even more impossible in the absence of sufficient or stable funding to the sector. So far, the government has not outlined a clear strategy to achieve this goal.Even if the new Benito Juárez universities operate at capacity, they would add barely 2% to national higher education enrollment.

Finally, despite opposition success in limiting the government’s proposed changes, the outlook for higher education remains bleak. Focusing resources on student scholarships while limiting funding to public institutions, postgraduate programs, research, technology development, innovation and international programs will constrain the future potential of these activities. Higher education in Mexico in a period of populism will be unable to sustain an acceptable level of quality and competitiveness. 


Roberto Rodríguez Gómez is a researcher at the Institute of Sociological Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). 

Alma Maldonado-Maldonado is a researcher at the Educational Research Department at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV). 


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